Five young Indian girls in bejeweled saris stand awkwardly at the wall of the Bombay bar. The men at the tiny tables opposite just sit there staring, beers and stacks of ten rupee notes in front of them.
There’s tinny Bollywood music playing and a couple of the girls occasionally lip-sync along. Mostly, they just giggle amongst themselves, sometimes lifting their kohl-rimmed eyes to shoot halfhearted smouldering looks at the men.
Eventually, one of the men holds up his wad of notes. A girl saunters over slowly and pulls the notes out of his fist one by one, staring into his eyes until he pulls back his hand. Enough.
My husband Pete and I are at Cannon, a bar that was rumoured to still have “bar line girls”. We’d both read about them in Suketu Mehta’s wonderful ode to Bombay Maximum City, but had believed they were mostly outlawed these days.
Cannon and its ilk are places where businessmen are said to lose their fortunes for the glances of the young girls who, as Mehta puts it, “[wear more clothes] than the average Bombay secretary does” and yet on a good night earn “twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar.” Just for looking at a man in a way that makes him feel like he’s the only one.
Pete and I shuffle behind a table and I try not to make eye contact with the bartenders (or are they stand over men?) dressed in black, standing in the corner with their hands clasped behind their back. I’m the only female customer in the bar and imagine they’ll ask me to leave soon. Before they get the chance, we order beers and our own stack of ten rupee notes. The men in black seem to relax when we do.
The little routine we witnessed when we first walked in continues, over and over, as we sit sipping our Kingfishers and trying our best not to stick out, which we obviously do. There’s one particularly gorgeous girl, petite and in a bright blue sari with silky black hair down to her bottom, batting her thick eyelashes at the guy sitting next to me. Eventually, he lifts up his thick stack of rupees and hands over the whole lot to her.
I’m confused. Surely that defeats the purpose of the whole thing?
Before I can figure it out I’m distracted. One of the girls is down on her hands and knees, flicking her hair around like mad and gyrating on the floor while one of the standover men fans ten rupee notes over her body, letting it fall like expensive rain. When he’s done, he picks it all up again and resumes his stony stance at the wall.
As Pete starts using his rupees to “buy” looks from the girls and figure out what all the fuss is about, I turn my attention to the guy next to me, asking questions as though I have no idea what I’ve stumbled into.
Most of the bar line girls, he tells me, come from the villages. They’re brought to the bar when they’re in their early teens by their parents or an agent; the girls often send the money they make back to their families.
The whole idea, he says matter of factly, is for each girl to make her clients fall in love with her and to make him think she’s in love, in order to squeeze the maximum amount of cash out of him.
So all of this is some sort of perverse courtship ritual, in which the girls have to treat each of their men as special, as though she’s dancing and singing just for him. Apparently once a dancer becomes a ‘regular’ for a customer, she can take home as much as 50,000 rupees (about $890) a month from him.
And with that, the man gets up and leaves.
Without a word, without a kiss, without even a dance with ‘his’ girl.
* Later, I read that the girls eventually do have to provide sex. This is deferred as long as possible, however: the girls recognise that that will normally be the end of things.